by Nick Marshall
The beaches in Malibu might look great from a surfboard, but the ocean looks even better from the saddle of a horse. Try these trails that wind along canyons and up into the hills for spectacular views over the coastline. We’ve picked out the four trail systems that most local riders and tours explore. You’ll be sharing the trail with hikers and mountain bikers, and the going isn’t always leisurely, but the rewards are outstanding.
1. Trails in the Santa Monica Mountains
More than 500 miles of trails crisscross the Santa Monica Mountains, and you don’t have to travel far from Malibu to find yourself in a remote wilderness of breathtaking beauty. The 67-mile Backbone Trail runs through the national park here and you can either park your own trailer at an available trailhead or take a guided tour. Here are some of the more popular horse-riding trails.
Ocean and Canyon View Trail
A moderate difficulty loop trail that starts from the parking lot on Bonsall Drive and winds for just over 4 miles through Zuma Canyon. On the way, you’ll cover open areas of sagebrush and wildflowers, and pass waterfalls and streams. Once you reach the highest elevation at nearly 1,000 feet, you can enjoy great views across to the ocean.
Zuma Canyon Trail
This 10-mile loop takes you through the stillness of the canyons with some challenging ascents and descents from ridgeline to creek bed. The trail can be narrow in places and heavy with brush, and there’s very little shade, so make sure you have plenty of water.
2. Point Mugu State Park
This part of the Santa Monica Mountains has more than 70 miles of hiking trails and 5 miles of beaches. The Big Sycamore Canyon trail starts at the campground of the same name and stretches for 6 miles, giving a gentle ride with great views. You can branch off a mile or so into this trail and take the Serrano Canyon trail instead. A single track creek gradually rises into a shady forest before rising onto open grassland.
3. Malibu Creek State Park
Just 25 miles from downtown LA, Malibu Creek State Park is home to the main watercourse through the Santa Monica Mountains and a peaceful landscape of oak woodlands and chaparral slopes. Take a guided tour with Malibu Riders up into the Agoura Hills and you’ll find yourself in the Paramount Ranch, the filming backdrop for numerous Westerns and TV series, which is undergoing a restoration project after being damaged in the 2018 Woolsey Fire. 20th Century Studios also have a film set in the park, providing the instantly recognizable location for “M*A*S*H.”
4. Topanga State Park
A favorite with visitors from Los Angeles, Topanga State Park has 36 miles of trails to explore, featuring canyon and grassland. Access to the Backbone Trail is through the Trippet Ranch, named after the family that owned the land when it was still a popular weekend getaway from LA. You can take a guided tour here from Los Angeles Horseback Riding, which has taken care of more than a few famous faces over the years.
As with any of the hiking, riding or biking trails that head into the backcountry, remember that conditions and access can change at short notice. Flooding, wildfires or public health restrictions can mean that some usually popular areas are off-limits, so be sure to check ahead with a local riding tour operator before heading out.
And after a long ride, stop into Rockwell Kitchen. Owner and executive chef Alla Rockwell grew up riding the trails of Malibu, and knows just what to serve up to refuel.